Born in the Brooklyn Jewish community of the 1890s, Charles Reznikoff earned a law degree but did not practice for long. He did work at a legal publishing firm in the 1930s, which proved a major inspiration in his writing. He began his career as a poet, however, as an imagist. Many of these early poems appeared in hand-set books that Reznikoff published himself. Meanwhile, his focus began to shift. At the publishing firm he was summarizing court records of legal cases for publication in reference books. They provided a unique, often violent, history of American social life.
Born in South Bend, Indiana, Kenneth Rexroth moved to Chicago with his family at age twelve. Although he attended classes at Chicago's Art Institute and later at the Art Students League in New York, he was largely (and prodigiously) self-educated. He would learn several languages, translate poems from the Chinese, French, Spanish, and Japanese, and exhibit his own paintings in several cities. He also worked early on as a fruit picker, a forest patrolman, a factory hand, and an attendant at a mental institution.
Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco and educated at Stanford and Columbia, earning a Ph.D. at the latter. She grew up in a conservative religious family for which the thought was the moral equivalent of the deed; thoughts themselves, therefore, were to be self-policed. The project of becoming a writer has for her been partly one of unlearning that family lesson; she has trained herself to take risks and take up subjects other poets have ignored.
Born in Maple Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland, Mary Oliver attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College. She lived for many years in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In addition to numerous volumes of poetry and prose poetry, she has written a book on prosody (A Poetry Handbook) as well as Blue Pastures, a collection of essays. She has taught at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Duke University, and Bennington College. The social world appears infrequently in Oliver's poetry, for she is above all a poet of nature.
Born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a postal worker, Charles Olson was educated at Wesleyan, Harvard, and Yale Universities. As a child, he spent summers on the Massachusetts coast at Gloucester, the city that would be the setting for his major poem sequence, The Maximus Poems. Anticipating a scholarly career, he completed doctoral research for a project on Herman Melville. It was interrupted by work for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and for the Office of War Information in Washington.
Born in New York and raised in San Francisco, George Oppen enrolled at Oregon State University but left after his future wife, also a student there, was expelled when they stayed out all night on a date. The couple went to France, where they founded a small press, publishing Louis Zukofsky's An "Objectivists" Anthology in 1932. In addition to Oppen and Zukofsky, the loose confederation of Objectivists included Pound, Reznikoff, and Williams. All shared at least a partial interest in the material presence of the poem and in its linguisticality.
Born and raised in New York City, Michael Palmer was educated at Harvard and lived on the East Coast before moving to San Francisco. The most lyrical of the well-known writers associated with Language poetry—he is sometimes considered one of the movement's precursors—Palmer shares their interest in fragmented and disjunctive narrativity, depersonalized speakers, and investigations of how language works as an independent system of meanings. But musicality and wit, along with a regular haunting by vestigial narrativity, distinguish his work from many others in the movement.
Born in San Francisco and raised on a farm north of Seattle, Gary Snyder was educated at Reed College, where he studied literature, Buddhist philosophy, and Native American mythology. He then worked as a logger and spent summers as a forest-fire lookout in Oregon, Washington, and California. Involved with the Beat writers in San Francisco in the mid-1950s, he made a major change in his life in 1956, moving to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. Except for some shipboard work, he remained there for twelve years.
Born and raised on the impoverished West Side of Patricia Chicago, Smith is a nationally known performance poet who has won a number of poetry slam contests. A former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, she was also a columnist for the Boston Globe for a number of years. She has also taught at Georgia Tech University, the University of Southern Maine, and Cave Canem, the latter a Brooklyn –based writing center with a focus on African American writers.
Theodore Roethke was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan, where his family managed greenhouses that were the subject of several of his early lyrics. In these densely nurtured spaces, Roethke began to forge a kind of mystical animism that stayed with him throughout his career. From these contained, miniature natural worlds, embodying a whole range of human sexual and generative impulses, he would eventually reach outward to the large scale visionary landscape poems of "North American Sequence," landscapes at once meticulously observed and psychologically suggestive.